Church Fathers & Greek Philosophy

Last Fall I took an intro course on Church History called, “The Church to the Reformation“.  Two questions I was asking throughout that course were:

1) “How much did Greek philosophical concepts actually affect the theology of the Church?”
and
2) “How much of that was a good or bad thing?”

Currently I’m in a different course on the “Christological and Trinitarian Controversies”, reading lots of the primary sources where the Church Fathers hammered out what they believed about Jesus and the Trinity. My answers will probably become more nuanced as I study, but, given that course last Fall and what I’ve read up to now, my answers to the two questions above are something like this:

1) Greek philosophy (particularly Platonism), created a framework in the minds of many of the Church fathers about the nature of God, a framework which they built much of their theology on, and thus a framework we have inherited.

2) It was not all bad, but some of the influences which were least supported by scripture are still considered “primary” in Christian theology today.

Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)
Mosaic of the beheading of Justin Martyr (click for source)

Here are some excerpts from the introduction to the texts, and they give good examples of those two points:

…the Apologists of the second century, Aristides, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tatian, and Theophilus of Antioch…shared a common concern to present Christianity to the Greco-Roman culture of their day in such a way as to defend Christianity against the charge of atheism. To the educated classes of the Greco-Roman world, they insisted that the truth of Christianity is that to which the pagan philosophers pointed…A special debt was owed to the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who taught that the divine Logos had spoken through the prophets and had been the subject of the theophanies of the Old Testament….(emphasis mine)

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 3). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

So, there this idea of “general revelation” that some of the Church’s earliest theologians held. They thought that, in some senses, Greek philosophy had been discovering truths which pointed to the one true God. While I don’t think they are necessarily wrong, the question is which things pointed to the one true God? On the other hand, which things pointed away from Him?

This identification of Christ with the Logos allowed the Apologists to insist that Christianity was faith in him to whom the Old Testament witnessed and to whom the pagan philosophers indistinctly pointed. It also offered an explanation of how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

The Apologists utilized a picture of a man putting forth his thought and spirit in external activity. This representation allowed them to recognize, although dimly, the eternal plurality in the Godhead and to show how the Word and the Spirit, truly manifested in space and time, could also be within the being of the Father… The Apologists set the future course for trinitarian theology and enabled Christianity to take seriously the presuppositions of Greek philosophy.

Rusch, William G.; Rusch, William G. (1980-10-01). Trinitarian Controversy (Sources of Early Christian Thought) (p. 5). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Those excerpts illustrate one example of how I think the Apologists imported ideas which were unbiblical. The question of “how God, unoriginate, eternal, and nameless, could be involved in a changeable world” is only a serious problem if you assume certain “presuppositions of Greek philosophy”. Those presuppositions could be true, they could be false. The God of the Old Testament already showed He was intimately involved with his creation, and the biblical idea that God is “changeless” applied not to the metaphysics of his being, but his character, or his overarching will (for more on this check out a great short post at the Reknew blog).

Another example would be the difficulty the early church had in understanding how Jesus could have suffered, and yet still be the divine “Logos”. Platonic metaphysics are notoriously hierarchical, and thus to think that God would actually “suffer” or experience the things of human life required some serious theological acrobatics. In this sense, the Church inherited some theological problems which only arose because of the underlying Greek metaphysics, typically Platonic. Since the apologists were trying to relate Christ TO their culture, it seems like some of them conformed their explanations of God to the dominant system of thought. We can’t necessarily blame them for it either, because we often do the same today, to our peril!

I’m excited to explore these early controversies, but I think it’s worth remembering that we should look to scripture for our understanding of God, even while we may use language, or even ideas, which are not directly from scripture. It’s also good for me to remember that despite differences of theology, the fate of the early church fathers was frequently that depicted in the mosaic of Justin Martyr above, and we should never enthrone our understanding of scripture, to the place of scripture, as the church so often does.

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